Sunday, April 7, 2013

Avoiding D&D Disneyland: Questing for Equipment

In a lot of the early D&D I played back in the 80s and 90s, setting was never a big concern. NPC interaction was largely handwaved, stores were stocked with every weapon and piece of equipment we wanted, and I don’t ever recall hearing names of the places we moved through nor the people who lived there. Unless we truly went rogue and had to be slapped down by the hand of authority, a trip to town was just downtime between dungeon crawls.

I call this type of setting ‘D&D Disneyland,’ it being a small world, after all. Although I understand that a DM’s job requires such preparation and concentration that sometimes detailing the adventure leaves the world with a slapdash paintjob, my wanderings in the prefab world of Stormbringer always had a realer, more unforgettable feel to them.

As the Young Kingdoms showed me, settings in roleplaying games are really immersive and interesting when their description gives the impression of interacting with a reality obeying its own internal logic, when despite the player characters having the opportunity to become major players in the world, it simultaneously seems to roll on fine without them, and does not stop existing the moment they leave the town and delve into a dank dungeon.

How does the harried DM create a memorable setting that calls the players back every week, makes a trip to town as exciting as a trip to a tomb, all without overburdening his already bursting plate?

One way is to introduce quests for equipment. A quickly resolvable sidequest for something the PCs need, especially when tied intimately to the goings on in the gameworld, can breathe life into an otherwise dull session in town. Sidequests can be overused, taking attention away from the main adventure path if there is one, so choosing one thing the adventurers need as a quest seed and having the explanation come from a denizen of the world should provide just enough adventure and setting colour to enhance the gaming experience.

Here are some examples from the mouth of Lena, chatty landlady at any small inn.

“Want some steel pegs, horseshoes or a new sword? Sven can do it, but the last shipment of iron was stolen by goblins. You could go hunt them down and bring back what you can find. Or you could cut out the middleman and go straight to the mines. Maybe the gnomes are still bringing iron up, but last I heard they met something nasty down deep and the lower levels were abandoned.”

“Armor is a whole nuther thing. You need fine craftsmanship, you’ll have to find some dwarves if you want to find anything better than a leather jerkin in these parts. Dwarvish make’ll cost you, but it’ll never rust and fit you like a glove. The elves muck around with chainmail a bit, but for real suits you’ll need dwarves. Humans in the city come close, but the dwarves in the mountains are your best bet.”

“Healing potions are tough. The druid gives out poultices and herbal remedies to folk of his persuasion, but don’t expect anything if you don’t follow the old religion. If you’re paying coin, the witch can whip up a few batches of simple stuff. It’s a bit iffy, and a bad potion could turn you into a frog or whatnot.”

“Staffs and magic rings? Nobody sells that kind of stuff openly. An old noble knight family might have a destitute member willing to part with some trinkets taken by an ancestor, but you’ll have to take what you can get. And get what you pay for. Course there’s always stealing…”

If you do try any of these, drop us a line and tell us how it went. Also, if you have any sidequest ideas yourself, feel free to drop them into the comments section.

Until next week!


  1. I like this idea, but I can see a problem. I usually played with magic items being so rare that they were never sold in shops, unless it was part of the storyline somehow, or as you have with the old noble knight's destitute descendants, a valuable family heirloom. It made finding that +1 dagger truly feel special.

    The downside was, and I think perhaps it would happen here, is what happens once the party acquires some of these items and then wants to sell them? Demand is high and now the party has control of the only supply.

  2. No solution is perfect, but in a vanilla D&D world with middling to low magic I think these side quests work well enough. I also have another post being edited about no more + 1 daggers, about making every magical trinket special and valuable, which kind of obviates your question. That being said, in a fantasy game at some time these things are bound to accumulate. What can PCs do? Why, go on another quest to find a buyer! Or fend off murder-hobos like themselves who want their goodies. Then there's always the Tolkien route - that little plus one dagger starts throwing out more and more powers that are slowly throwing the world off kilter. Either quest to destroy it or let it destroy the game world.

  3. My favorite part of Baldur's Gate is the poisoned iron ore. Until you resolve it all Iron on the swordcoast is capable of breaking, and often. I remember when all the hard earned cash I saved for the two-handed sword evaporated minutes later. After that there was no more time for delay or exploration, I had to resolve this immediately.

    I like your first example for the same reason, although smaller in scope it gets the job done.

    1. Hmmm, 'poisoned' iron ore seems a bit of a dick move to keep the PCs poor and underequipped. I am OK with rich characters because I give them things they'd want to spend coin on (i.e. building homes, raising armies or dead fellows, etc etc), but I'd much rather have them spend a day killing goblins then bust their humps for an evaporating sword. I understand the feeling of accomplishment you had when you got it, but losing it right after would make me put my fist through the screen...

    2. This was actually during my replay for the Enhanced Edition so I already knew what I was getting into. However, the in-game reason for my weapons breaking then prompted to stop everything I was doing and get on with moving the plot forward. I enjoy prodding provided there is in-game reason. To provide an opposite example, Dragon Age: Origins has the threat of an invasion hanging over your head yet you can dilly dally all you want. I'll take a dick move over an immersion breaker anyday.

    3. HA! Great answer! I just wish I had time to play video games again... Then again, breaking weapons is a very real problem in ancient warfare, so maybe it was an extra dash of realism.

  4. The desire to see my players "actually do something" when in town, and even choose to "take some time" between adventures has led me to develop a kind of subsystem for handling downtime.

    I had this idea that kind of inverts the concept of PCs looking for adventure hooks, and instead creating hooks for NPCs (like a weird fishing mini-game). Most of the downtime mini-game revolves around hiring/recruiting NPCs to do the kinds of things you would normally gloss over in a "D&D Disneyland," like shopping or item creation.

    If you're familiar with the Skill systems of 3e/4e, where skills were unified under the same dice rolls, then pared down to broad categories, it starts from there -- dividing daily life into spheres of influence like Academics, Culture, Deception, and Survival.

    If a PC wants to research a new spell, they make checks within the (e.g.) Academics, Discipline, and/or Intuition spheres to hand-pick research assistants, gather ingredients, put their collective nose to the grindstone, and experiment with various spellcasting methods before settling on a final ritual.

    "Rounds" and "turns" take days and weeks instead of minutes and seconds, and the results of an endeavor are generally chosen before beginning. The system needs some work, and some testing, but I'm hoping it helps bridge the gap between the dungeon-crawling and fantasy world simulation.


    1. Sounds interesting, and puts a whole new spin on henchmen and NPC interaction. You should write it up and post it.